What Is Cognitive Dissonance?

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Cognitive dissonance is the discomfort felt when two pieces of information contradict each other or when your behavior goes against the truth of a situation. Examples of cognitive dissonance include a smoker who knows cigarettes are dangerous, a company that doesn't follow its code of ethics, or a person who avoids speaking about a past trauma while still dealing with it in the present.

As a result of wanting to resolve the mental conflict of cognitive dissonance, people might either change their behavior or ignore information that goes against their desires and goals. For example, the smoker might either quit smoking or rationalize their smoking by saying other habits are just as dangerous.

Cognitive dissonance theory, which was founded by American social psychologist Leon Festinger in 1957, states that cognitive dissonance drives people to resolve the conflict between truths and behaviors that don't match one another. This can mean either changing behavior or ignoring the truth to avoid discomfort.

This article discusses the signs of cognitive dissonance along with how to cope with it.

confused person

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Cognitive Dissonance Signs

Signs of cognitive dissonance depend on the situation, but they usually include feeling tense or adopting behavior meant to cover up or ignore the truth, including:

  • Hypocritical behavior (the act of doing or saying something that contradicts beliefs or information that is known)
  • Avoiding discussion and feelings about traumatic events
  • Defensive behavior
  • Avoiding facts to cover for a lie
  • Seeking or spreading information that confirms an idea instead of learning or expressing the truth
  • Repeating affirmations to the self or others to avoid a change in behavior
  • Feeling guilty or shameful about acting in a way that doesn't reflect the truth
  • Emphasizing positive feelings to cover for a lie

Cognitive Dissonance Examples

Examples of cognitive dissonance can range from mild to harmful. They include:

  • Engaging in or justifying habits that are unhealthy, like smoking
  • Rationalizing abuse
  • Pretending traumatic events have no effect on the present day
  • Spreading confusing or false information to prevent change; for example, when women couldn't vote, those against women voting would call women fighting for voting rights "unladylike" or "spinsters"
  • Threatening to isolate someone for telling the truth, like when cult members are isolated for leaving
  • Maintaining privilege by focusing on general ideas instead of facts, like when rules and ideas about equal pay don't necessarily mean equality exists

Cognitive Dissonance Causes

Cognitive dissonance helps people maintain a sense of stability in their life or identity. The causes of cognitive dissonance might include:

  • Complying with expectations or culture at work, school, or in a group
  • Fear of uncertainty
  • Avoiding the pain of trauma
  • Dominating others or maintaining a privilege
  • Righteousness about a belief or goal
  • Covering for an unplanned lie
  • Justifying a bad habit or addiction


Factors That Influence Cognitive Dissonance

Factors that might influence cognitive dissonance include:

  • Wanting to avoid disappointment after unrealistic expectations
  • Maintaining close relationships
  • Negative or positive emotion when faced with new information
  • Level of guilt or shame after receiving information
  • The benefit or privilege gained by avoiding a truth
  • Culture or society within a group or organization
  • Addiction
  • Trauma

The Result of Cognitive Dissonance

Cognitive dissonance can have positive or negative results. Since cognitive dissonance means wanting to reconcile or ease the discomfort of new information, it can lead to:

  • Quitting a bad habit
  • Changing behavior after getting correct information
  • Speaking truth to create change
  • Addressing trauma or abuse

Negative effects of cognitive dissonance could include:

  • Staying too long in harmful groups, workplaces, or relationships
  • Blaming the wrong person or entity for a mistake
  • A status quo that harms people with fewer rights
  • Lies becoming more important than the truth
  • Defense of abusers or harmful group dynamics

How to Cope With Cognitive Dissonance

According to cognitive dissonance theory, the three ways of coping with cognitive dissonance are:

  • Changing beliefs based on new information
  • Changing behavior
  • Changing perception of behavior

Preventing Cognitive Dissonance

Ways to prevent cognitive dissonance include:

  • Resolving to change behavior after learning facts
  • Admitting that you or someone else can be wrong
  • Understanding whether or not expectations for a goal were realistic
  • Researching ways to improve upon a setback without blaming others
  • Prioritizing health and well-being of individuals regardless of group dynamics
  • Accepting uncertainty
  • Understanding inequality and injustice within large groups and societies


Summary

Cognitive dissonance is the uncomfortable feeling that results from finding out new information that contradicts what is already known about a situation. This discomfort also happens when someone's behavior doesn't match reality or facts. Signs of cognitive dissonance include tense emotions after getting new information, denying reality, hypocritical behavior, isolating others who don't comply with an untruth, and avoiding the reality of a situation overall.

A Word From Verywell

We all face cognitive dissonance at times since we're always learning new things that might demand change in our behavior or belief system. Whether you resolve feelings of cognitive dissonance may depend on influences from work and family, your goals, or your identity.

Facing truths or changing an unhealthy habit might be uncomfortable, but resolving this discomfort can create positive changes. Also, speaking up for another person could improve a group or culture overall.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What are some common examples of cognitive dissonance?

    Common examples of cognitive dissonance include:

    • Eating food you know is unhealthy
    • Doing something convenient that might be bad for the environment
    • Avoiding discussion of a conflict or event despite strong feelings or trauma
    • Conforming to a group or society even if rules are not being followed or people are harmed
  • Is cognitive dissonance common?

    Cognitive dissonance happens to most people at some point. We can all engage in habits that cause harm to ourselves or the world, such as when we eat something we know isn't good for us or do something convenient that could be bad for the environment.

  • How can you avoid cognitive dissonance?

    Ways to avoid cognitive dissonance include accepting uncertainty, being open to changing your behavior after new information, admitting when you're wrong, and setting realistic expectations.

13 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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